The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Pianist Christopher Taylor discusses the music and Piano Concerto of Robert Schumann and how Schumann differs from other Romantics

April 12, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra under John DeMain (below, in a  photo by Katrin Talbot) will perform a promising and intriguing concert with unusual and seemingly ununified or unrelated mix of repertoire.

The program of the well-known and the little-known features Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” with the Madison Symphony Chorus; Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”; and Tchaikovsky’s Dante-inspired “Francesca da Rimini.”

But for many listeners, the heart of the program will be the performance of the Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54, by the arch-Romantic composer Robert Schumann.

Many reasons explain the fascination.

2010 was the Schumann Bicentennial.

This is the first performance of the concerto in many years by the MSO – and struck The Ear as one of the standout gaps in the local celebration of the Schumann Year. It is good that is being remedied.

But most of all, the soloist is UW virtuoso pianist and Van Cliburn bronze medalist Christopher Taylor (below), who learned the concerto specifically for these three performances.

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15-$75. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information about the concert, the program. the performers and tickets, visit:

Taylor recently granted an e-mail interview to The Ear about the Schumann and his Piano Concerto:

How do you situate or compare Schumann (below, seen in a photo with his pianist wife Clara Wieck) ) to other Romantic composers?

Schumann’s career certainly followed a distinctive trajectory, beginning with a burst of iconoclastic energy, and in time evolving towards a more conservative sort of Classical respectability.  The early cycles of character pieces for piano show a marvelously energetic youth, impatient with old-fashioned forms, experimenting with programmatic and representational modes of expression that were altogether novel, particularly within the piano literature.

Although the musical material may occasionally verge on the repetitious or the banal, the many quirky flights of fancy ensure the complete unforgettability of Schumann’s early output.

Once Schumann settled down into a stable married bourgeois life, he became much more interested in Classical forms like sonatas, concertos, quintets, and the like, and his desire to emulate Beethoven became more overt.

But his distinctive lyrical stamp and eccentric shifts of mood remained always in evidence. Throughout his career he proved himself a great musical thinker who managed to avoid the flamboyant excesses of some of his contemporaries.

How do you situate his Piano Concerto among his other works?

The Concerto falls into the later, more staid part of Schumann’s output.  But it does not simply ape the concerti of earlier masters.

Characteristic musical touches can be found everywhere: the unexpected shift into a Chopinesque intermezzo in the development section of the first movement, followed by obsessively energetic sequencing; plaintive harmonic and melodic turns mixed with considerable bravado in the cadenza; the understated and conversational poetry of the second movement, more suggestive of chamber music; and the triumphant fanfare of the finale, again enhanced by exuberant sequential passagework.

It is not so blatantly virtuosic as many Romantic concertos, or earlier solo works by Schumann like the Toccata or the “Carnaval.” But it maintains a beautiful equilibrium between brilliance and sophistication, as well as between individualism and traditionalism.

What qualities most attract you to Schumann (below, in a photo circa 1850)? Is there anything that puts you off?

Many of the qualities mentioned above I find very attractive indeed: the quirky moments, the iconoclasm balanced by respect for the Classical heritage.

Certain technical details of composition sometimes irritate me: sequences that unfold in an overly predictable way, or passages where the same rhythmic structure prevails for bar after bar.

But of course it’s best to view such issues not as liabilities but as opportunities for the performer, to prevent a feeling of musical predictability by the use of personal interpretive touches.

What piano works (solo, chamber) do you like most?

I have a great love for the “Davidsbündlertänze” as well as the later “Kinderszenen” (Scenes of Childhood) and “Waldszenen” (Forest Scenes). The F-sharp minor sonata, despite some awkward features, is a wonderfully impassioned work that I intend to play before too long.

Among the chamber works, the E-flat piano quartet is a great favorite, and I have a certain sentimental attachment to the Fantasy pieces for piano and clarinet.  Of course, if you include the song cycles with the chamber music, then I’d have to mention “Dichterliebe” (A Poet’s Loves).

How did learning the concerto for this occasion change or confirm your opinion of Schumann?

The concerto may have acquired a bit of a reputation as a work for talented high school pianists, which could account for it appearing less frequently on professional programs now than it did 30 or 50 years ago.

Learning it has certainly banished from my mind any thought that it is just a student work.  I remarked above on its many Schumannesque virtues. By learning to play the piece, and by studying the score, I have come to understand these qualities much more deeply than I did when I had only a listener’s perspective.

The details and subtleties Schumann included in the score give me a fresh appreciation for him as not only a composer with a great heart but a great mind as well.

Posted in Classical music

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